Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Dark Watchers of the Santa Lucia Mountains

The Santa Lucia Mountains dominate central California's Coast from San Luis Obispo to Monterey. I can say from experience that the mountains are generally pleasant, providing both beautiful scenery and a quiet place to retreat from life's demands. However, legend holds that they are also haunted by strange, pitch-black specters that appear at a distance and seem to watch those who wander into the mountains or sometimes simply stare off into the distance. Their nature and purpose is unknown, but they have long been reported by people venturing into the mountains. The story is the same - someone will be climbing a slope or hiking a trail or beating a path through thick vegetation, and look up only to see a large, human-like figure garbed in a black hat and black robes, with no skin showing, looking down at them or else slowly surveying the area. If the witness moves to approach the figure, or tries to call the attention of others to it, it vanishes.

Image from

These specters, known as the Dark Watchers, are well known in local folklore, and even appear in John Steibeck's short story Flight and Robinson Jeffer's poem "Such Counsel You Gave to Me." It has been claimed that the Chumash who lived in the southern portions of the mountains, down around San Luis Obispo, have stories about these beings that date to before European contact with the area. They certainly were a well-known phenomenon by the 1930s, when Steinbeck and Jeffers were writing.

Commentary: This type of story is the reason why I love ghost stories as much as I do. While there's nothing bad reported to have happened to the people who have witnessed the Dark Watchers, they nonetheless are sinister, creepy, and just generally oogie. Just imagining seeing one of these things as you're going for a walk in the woods is enough to send a chill down your spine.

Oh yeah, this is the good stuff.

As noted above, it is clear that the stories of the Dark Watchers were in circulation by the 1930s, but it is often said that the Chumash who lived San Luis Obispo county had old stories about them. This may be, but the compilations of Chumash stories that I am familiar with (and because of my job and my training, I am familiar with most of what has been written about the Chumash) do not include stories of the Dark Watchers or anything similar. On the one hand, it can not be expected that the ethnographers who were collecting stories managed to get everything, so that there are stories out there that have not been captured by anthropologists is a certainty. However, it is also a common tactic for people trying to make a claim seem legitimate to falsely claim that there were Native American stories concerning it. So, there may have been stories about the Dark Watchers amongst the Chumash (and the Salinan, who occupied much fo the rest of the Santa Lucia Mountains), but I will remain a bit skeptical of this claim until I see it from a reliable source and not simply posted on websites.

I am tempted to call this a variant of the shadow people stories that have become popular in recent decades. Certainly it bears many of the same traits, and is nearly identical in appearance. However, as the Dark Watchers pre-date the popular shadow people stories and have taken on a local cultural significance, so for reasons of talking folklore, I am going to treat them differently, even though they likely have the same explanations.

Special Video:

...and here's a short film about the Dark Watchers:

Sources: Local lore, Weird U.S., Published book, Blog

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Shoemake Lake/Shoemake Road Ghosts, Salida, California

Near the small town of Salida, California, on Shoemake Avenue, there is a seasonal pond, caused by rainwater settling in a small natural basin, locally known as Shoemake Lake. It is said that several years ago, a woman was driving a car with her two children in the back seat, when she lost control (presumably because of water on the road) and drove into the pond. The children drowned, and the mother may have drowned as well.

Since then, if you visit this spot when there is standing water, you may just see or hear the ghostly children, and possibly the mother.

Image of the area via Google

Commentary: Despite growing up in Salida, I only recently heard this story when my sister and I began talking about ghost stories over the phone. Yep, me, the gatherer o' ghost stories, didn't hear about one from his own home town until after he had been living elsewhere for a good fifteen years.

I have been trying to figure out why I hadn't heard of this story before, and I have two basic ideas. 1) this may be a new story, and as a result is not something that I would have come into contact with as a teenager or child; or, more likely 2) I left Modesto just as people were beginning to routinely go onto the internet (I moved out of Salida in 1996, when computer ownership nationwide was something around half of what it currently is), and as a result access to stories such as this were limited to word-of-mouth, and, frankly, I wasn't the most socially adept teenager, resulting in less opportunities for me to hear the good stories. Interestingly, this story still hasn't made it online (well, I guess it has now since I'm posting it here, but...well, you get the idea).

The story has obvious parallels with La Llarona, but so far I haven't heard a telling of it that contains the same warnings of danger as one gets with La Llarona. It also has obvious legend tripping potential.

Regardless, it's a good little story, and as far as I can tell, I'm the first person to put it on the internet. So, yay me?

Oh, and the odds of drowning in what amounts to a big but shallow mud puddle because your car skidded into it? I'm going to go out on a limb and so that it's close to zero. I wonder if the story was originally cooked up for the larger body of water known as Miller Lake located to the west.

Sources: Local Folkore

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Birkdale Palace Hotel

The Birkdale Palace Hotel, in Southport, Merseyside, England, was opened in 1866, and was a huge building by the standards of the day, boasting 75 bedrooms and a magnificent reception area. Occupying a 20-acre parcel of land, the hotel was the model of a mid-19th century luxury hotel. In 1880, the building was modified and refurbished, and the grounds reduced to five acres.

Image from

During the 1880s, further modifications included the installation of baths (complete with pipes to bring in salt water from the ocean - bringing in "special" water, weather salt water or mineral water or some other such type, was a common practice in the rather highly pseudo-scientific health spas of the late 19th century), elevators, and electric lights. In 1884, a railway station was built adjacent to the hotel, which remained open until 1952. In the 1920s (some sources say as early as 1919, which seems somewhat unlikely though not impossible), flights from Blackpool began landing at the local airfield.

During the 1940s, the Red Cross converted it into a rest home for U.S. Army Airmen. It went back into use as a hotel in 1945.

It closed as a hotel in 1967, but was used as a filming location for What's Good for the Goose and The Haunted House of Horror (subtle title, there) in 1968 and 1969. The hotel was demolished later that year, though the coach house had since become the Fishermen's Rest pub and remained standing and open. A housing estate now sits on the ground that once were home to the hotel.

The pub itself has a bit of history. A group of 14 lifeboatmen drowned while trying to save other people in 1886, and their bodies were brought to the pub and laid out until more permanent arrangement could be made. Now, 14 brass mermaids on the bar commemorate them, as does the arrangement of some of the bar furniture.

The popular stories about the hotel claim that hauntings began almost immediately after construction (though whether or not these stories date to that time or are later inventions in unclear), when the original architect arrived to find that the hotel had been built the wrong way around (facing away from, rather than towards, the ocean), and climbing to the roof to commit suicide by leaping off. His ghost was said to be seen riding the elevators (one would assume after they were installed, 15 years after the suicide, probably because they were novel and kinda' nifty to a bored ghost) and wandering the second floor. During the 1969 demolition, the construction crew allegedly heard voices and other strange noises coming from the elevator shaft, and reported that the elevators continued to move on their own accord even after their power had been cut. When the demolition crew finally cut the elevator's cables, they reportedly had to hammer at the elevator to get it to drop.

This same construction crew reportedly found themselves locked into their hotel rooms on several occasions (what, the rooms lock from the outside?), strange noises would wake them up at night, shouting and fighting could be heard in unoccupied parts of the hotel, and that they would often hear the clack of women's heels walking on the non-carpeted floors, and the voices of people in the lobbies. Though, they were quick to admit, that these latter sounds might have been from young unmarried couples who would sometimes sneak into the hotel to use the empty rooms for a tryst.

It is also alleged that in 1961 a 6-year old Southport girls' body was found underneath one of the hotel beds, killed by a hotel porter, and that at some other point in the 1950s or 60s, two sisters culminated a suicide pact in one of the hotel's rooms. While these rumors are repeated in the talk of ghost stories, there is little information regarding ghosts directly associated with them.

The Fisherman's Rest, the former coach-house-turned-pub, is also said to be haunted. The hostelry is said to be haunted by the spirit of a little girl, though how she makes herself known is not clear, and most of the haunting of the pub is said to be of the "I felt like something was watching me" variety, with no actual physical manifestations.

Commentary: This is an interesting one in that many of the stories of the hauntings persist well after the hotel was torn down. Whether or not these stories pre-date the demolition of the hotel, I do not know, but I will try to find out and will update this entry if I do. Regardless, unlike many a haunted hotel story, this one is not being kept alive by hoteliers hoping to make money off of the deal.

The allegedly earliest ghost story, that of the architect, is pretty clearly false. The architect did not kill himself, but dies of a lung disease (likely tuberculosis) several years after the construction of the hotel. What's more, there is no evidence that the hotel was constructed facing the wrong way around - and with a building project such as this, it stretches credulity that A) it would be built the wrong way around (the foundation engineering, if nothing else, would likely prevent this), or B) that such an occurrence wouldn't leave a distinctive paper trail. Remember, this is the 19th century, when bureaucratic paper trails were really getting their steam up.

It is also interesting that the ghost stories for this place do not appear to be particularly well known. Though the sources state that they are a strong part of local folklore, and I have no reason to believe that they are not, the stories are not well represented on line, or (as far as I have been able to tell) in print. I have found references to it on Wikipedia, a historic architecture site, and a smattering of other sites, all of which appear to have liberally cut-and-pasted from each other. This is another case where it appears that plagiarism and laziness are slowing the evolution of the ghost story.

Sources:, Wikipedia, UFO Digest (UFO Digest has ghost stories?)